Tuesday, February 2, 2010

I’ll have the Half-Smoke ‘All the Way’

It’s a Washington, D.C. institution that has nothing to do with monuments, museums or government buildings. It has fed the stomachs and souls of the folks in the nation’s capital and from around the world for more than 50 years. It’s Ben’s Chili Bowl.

It’s a place as friendly and unpretentious as it gets despite its amazing success, which we noticed as soon as we walked up from the Metro stop at 2: 30 p.m. and looked across the street at the line of people outside of the small white building whose façade was covered with yellow and red signage. Bill Cosby thrust Ben’s into the national spotlight in 1985 when he held a press conference there to celebrate his number one show. In 2004, Ben’s received the Gallo of Sonoma “America's Classics” Restaurant Award from the James Beard Foundation. The place has been spotlighted by every news, travel and food show imaginable.
(Photo from Ben's Chili Bowl Web site.)

The line weaved inside the building (a former silent movie theater) that looked every bit its 100 years of age but it moved fast with loud, friendly workers shouting encouragement.
Ben's is proud of it's African-American roots and on its walls are pictures of black entertainers and leaders of the Civil Rights movement who are customers. A sign near the door proclaims "We Love Our Customers. You Are The Best." The menu is above the grill behind the counter. Other signs above the counter direct customers about food and service: "Our Sandwiches Are Made to Order," "Tipping is Permitted For Good Service, and "All Sandwiches Wrapped In Aluminum Foil To Preserve Heat And Freshness."
At Ben’s the line leads to a cashier where you order first then head for a table in the back where you are served your food, unless you skip the line and head for the white, Formica counter in front of the food station, which we did.

There, a large smiling man with a beard and long-braided hair tied back wearing a cook’s white shirt loudly referred to me as “Mr. Tony” and my wife as “Mrs. Tony,” took our order and then quickly moved, and I swear, disappeared, into the swarm of cooks, servers and cashiers working behind the counter.

Our server/cook in the center.

I had the half-smoke “all the way” (pictured above) and Maria ordered the chili dog. A half-smoke is unique to the Washington D.C. area. It is essentially a plumper version of a hot dog with a little more spice and smoke flavor. All the way, means it comes with mustard, onions and chili. Maria’s chili dog looked sad by comparison.

The half-smoke tasted like it looked: meat covered in meat sauce with lots of spice and hints of mustard and onion. There’s nothing subtle about the flavor. It’s good, hearty, fun food, which was perfect to sooth our hunger and feed our souls on a cold late December day.

Ben’s Chile Bowl, 1213 U St., N.W., Washington D.C. Across from the U Street/African American Civil War Memorial/Cardozo Metro stop, (Green Line).

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